Book: “The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin
Publishing Info: Orbit, August 2015
Where Did I Get this Book: the library!
Book Description: This is the way the world ends…for the last time.
A season of endings has begun.
It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world’s sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun.
It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter.
It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.
This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.
Review: In anticipation of the third and final book in “The Broken Earth” trilogy, I’m reviewing the first two books in the series. At this point, to anyone who is paying attention to fantasy/sci-fi fiction, N.K. Jemisin is a name to pay attention to, and ‘The Fifth Season” perfectly highlights the strengths that make her such a notable author. Intricate and complicated world-building, solid and diverse characters, and a stark analysis of oppression, grief, power, and revenge all told while playing with narrative styles.
Our story takes place in the Stillness, a land that is anything but still, regularly wracked with “world ending” natural disasters sent forth from Father Earth who is known to hate the life that has infested his surface. Over time, the people of the Stillness have come up with a series of guidelines (stonelore) for surviving through these cataclysmic events called “Fifth Seasons.” There are strict use-castes that every individual lives by. Each is a member of a comm, and those who are “comm less” are deemed very unlucky to not have a shelter when the next Season comes. But most of all, those with the power to cool and manipulate the Earth, orogenes, are kept within strict confines, their power reigned in and directed as society deems fit.
This is a story told from the perspective of the oppressed, and what’s more, it is seemingly those who are most powerful, and most responsible for the ongoing safety of the world, who are kept so neatly shackled by those around them. If discovered on their own, orogenes, or “roggas” (an insulting slur for these people), are often beaten to death. But, at the same time, when raised within the strict confines of the Fulcrum (an organization created to monitor orogenes), they are put to work to benefit society. This work comes with a semblance of respect and individual control, but as the story progresses, we see that even here, “orogene” is just a polite term for “rogga” and if the oppression isn’t as blatant as a comm beating, it is equally, if not more terribly, present in these false tenures of respectability.
Jemisin once again plays with narrative style while presenting this story. We have three characters whose stories we follow. And one, Essun, a middle age woman whose orogene son has recently been beaten to death after his father discovered his abilities, tells her story in second person tense. This is odd at first, but ties in deeply with the larger structure that Jemisin is attempting to create. Essun is cynical, powerful, and has years of history beneath her belt that drives her story of revenge after another Fifth Season begins, and one that she knows will likely be the last for humanity.
The other two characters tell the beginning and middle experience of a rogga growing up in this world. Damaya has just been taken in to the Fulcrum, a reprieve from a family that rejected her, and finds comfort in the strict guidelines of this place, even if those guidelines hurt her. And Syenite is a grown member of the Fulcrum, set on earning her way up the ladder of the Fulcrum power system, but beginning to struggle against these same guidelines, especially when she is sent out under the tutelage of a powerful (but mad?) mentor, one whom she is expected to breed with and produce a child (the Fulcrum is nothing if not practical about continuing its existence).
Throughout all of these stories are sprinkled in mysteries upon mysteries. What are the strange obelisks that drift through the skies? What deadciv purpose could they serve? What do the creatures called stone-eaters want with the orogenes? And who is the mysterious narrator who pops in sporadically between chapters to pepper in extra tidbits of knowledge, always speaking to “you?” And what makes this story so excellent is that even as some of these questions are answered, we see that we are still only scraping the surface of this strange world and society.
“The Fifth Season” is everything one could want out of speculative, science fiction. Boundlessly creative, fully realized, and using these structures and characters to speak deeply to societal challenges recognizable in our own world. This book deserves every accolade (and it received many! Winning the Hugo Award and being nominated for the Nebula, among others). Run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore/library/Amazon store today to check out this book! And what’s more, a preview, the second book is just as good!
Rating 10: A spectacular show of force in science fiction writing! Three cheers for Jemisin!
“The Fifth Season” is on these Goodreads lists: “Non-Traditional Epic Fantasy” and “Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance”
Find “The Fifth Season” at your library using WorldCat